Serbia between Russia and the West: An unwilling two-way split.
Among the countries which took active part in the Moscow Victory Day celebrations was Serbia. Not only was its president at the event, but also an elite unit of the Serbian army took part in the parade.
As Serbia makes a desperate bid to join the EU, many in the West were unpleasantly surprised by this move. With the Ukrainian crisis relations between West and Russia are returning to Cold war temperatures, as both sides seek security in their own backyard. When it comes to the Balkans, however, a question is in the air: Where does Serbia stand and has it made its own mind?
While Western leaders smeared the Victory Day Parade, Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić accepted Vladimir Putin’s invitation. Furthermore, the Serbian president, without consulting the government, made a decision to send a 75-strong unit of the elite presidential Guard to take part in the parade. This was the first time in Serbian modern history that its army appeared in a parade abroad. In addition, last year Serbia held its own parade – the first after almost 30 years – in honour of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Belgrade!
Serbia currently holds the presidency of the OSCE, and has decided not to back western sanctions against Moscow. It has declared military neutrality and independent foreign policy. However, since the October revolution of 2000 which brought down Slobodan Milošević, every government has said its main priority was joining the EU. The current government maintains it wants “EU membership and best possible relations with Russia”.
This is reflected by the following moves: while president Nikolić appeared at the parade in Moscow, PM Aleksandar Vučić is getting ready to meet US Vice President Joe Biden in Washington in June, and the foreign minister Ivica Dačić is going to Ukraine.
Although this way of handling politics is criticized by many as superficial and naïve, the question is what keeps Serbia from going one way or the other? Although many commentators in the West mention “Russia is Serbia’s traditional ally”, that argument is often oversimplified and not understood enough. The argument that Serbia needs to firmly back EU policy if it wants to join is also not that simple.
Looking at history, whenever Serbia was facing the abyss, Russia stepped in to save her. Furthermore, in the past century, the push towards the abyss mostly came from the West: the Austro-Hungarian empire, Nazi Germany, open western backing to other nations in the breakup of Yugoslavia, NATO war in 1999, independence of Kosovo…
On the other hand, unlike any other country, Russia politically and militarily backed Serbia’s struggle for liberation from the Ottoman Empire.
When the First World War broke out it was Russia that immediately stepped in against the Austro-Hungarian/German coalition, and not any other country. Russia also backed Serbia in the 1990’s during the breakup of Yugoslavia. No other country did such things for Serbia. Even in the recent devastating floods that hit the Balkans last year it was Russians who reacted first. This tragic event was especially memorable in Serbia, as the Russian government and media showed more willingness to aid and promote the need for help than the West.
However, the problem in Russia’s relation with Serbia seems to be in the following: Whenever Russia saves Serbia from falling it leaves her standing on the edge of the abyss. That is a reason why there is a push in Serbia towards the West. For, although cheaper Russian gas and interests in the Serbian oil industry has influence, those investments are far less than those from the West. And while the West is (although less than earlier) investing large sums of money in the NGO sector and promotion of its values and interests, Russia fails to do so.
However, events in the Balkans make it hard for Serbia’s governments since 2000 – all of them very pro-EU – to pursue that path. There are several examples. In March 2004 massive violence erupted in Kosovo which left 35 ancient churches burned to the ground, and several thousand Serbs fled their homes. The Western media reported about “ethnic violence” although – if a look is taken at the consequences – it is clear the Albanian majority led violence against the non-Albanian (not only Serb) minority. This was followed by constant pressure on Serbia from the West (including the EU) to withdraw its institutions and remaining elements of statehood from Kosovo, which was finally achieved by the Brussels agreement in 2013. Then there is the issue with Bosnia where – unlike in the case of Kosovo where Albanian independence is supported – the Serbian entity is constantly pressured to succumb to the concept of unifying the country, although it is against the 1995 Dayton peace accords.
Regardless of those circumstances, all the time Belgrade was making strong moves towards the West: it extradited all of the indictees to The Hague, it joined the Partnership for peace programme and signed several documents on cooperation with NATO, signed the Stabilisation and Association agreement with the EU in 2008, applied for membership in 2009, became a candidate country in 2011, and opened accession negotiations in 2014.
In addition, if you look at Serbian culture – one can see it is very much Western. Many will say they love Russia, but most Serbs have never been to Moscow. Rather, they travel across Europe – Paris, Rome, Austria, Germany… You could hardly ever see a Russian car on the streets, hear Russian music or meet a young person that speaks Russian. But everyone knows and likes a Mercedes, listens to popular music from the States/UK, wants to see New York or London, and knows at least some English. Therefore, the battle for culture is clearly to the favour of the West not Russia.
Russia was, therefore, very much on its way out from Serbia since the 2000’s – until Kosovo declared independence in 2008 which was backed by the West. That is what brought Russia back to the Balkans. The acting Serbian government at the time, and those which followed it, were faced with an almost impossible position: to continue the attempt to join the EU which clearly has different standards in policies towards Serbia and others in the region.
Even after Serbia signed the 2013 Brussels agreement, which saw the end of its judiciary in the north part of Kosovo (mostly inhabited by Serbs and where Pristina did not have any authority until 2013), Belgrade is continuously faced with new, previously unmentioned “challenges” (i.e. conditions) to further recognize the Albanian rule of Kosovo.
After the recent terrorist attacks in Kumanovo in Macedonia – staged by well-equipped Albanian guerrilla which killed 8 police officers – even a very pro-western Serbian minister Rasim Ljajić, who participated in all governments since 2000 – commented that the reaction of the West was “like if kids had a little quarrel”, and not that it was a direct act of destabilizing Macedonia and the Balkans. Instead, two days after the events in Macedonia, the former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt commented in Belgrade on the head or Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik’s “disturbing ideas of breaking up the country”.
In this, almost impossible position, Serbia is forced to balance on both sides. But, as the Swedish FM said in Belgrade – “in the long term Serbia will not be able to sit on two chairs”. However, instead of the Russian chair, Serbia would gladly take a seat at the European/Western chair if the host would stop moving the seat all the time.
Milan Dinic is from Serbia’s Svedok magazine.